Story of a Match: Bolton
So, it took Paul Lambert three attempts to do what Nigel Worthington failed at: win away in the Premier League. A fantastic 2-1 victory at Horwich Wanderers was the result after Lambert rang the changes following the defeat to WBA; even Grant Holt was expendable. So, how did we get this result?
It was clear that Norwich went into this game, as they have any other, with a clear strategy. Rather than just going out and playing their own game, they’re looking to match up favourably with what they judge as the weak spots of the opposition. Against Chelsea it was a 5 man defence which they hoped to counter Chelsea’s dominance through the middle, while against Stoke it was being more physical. Against Bolton today, it’s clear where they saw the weak spot.
Above you can see our successful passes in the first half, a map which is skewed to the right hand side of the pitch. The Bolton left back, Paul Robinson, is not full of pace, and is a frequent visitor to the referee’s book. By seeking to match the tricky, pacey Elliot Bennett up with him, Norwich aimed to exploit this potential mismatch. Bennett, and Pilkington on the other side, had a mixed afternoon on the flanks but were a constant threat.
The instructions seem to be for Bennett to provide the attacking threat on the right, supported by Wes Hoolahan behind Morison, and for Pilkington to remain somewhat more solid on the left. Pilkington broke less, attempted to beat defenders less and kept things simple while Bennett put more balls into the box and generally tested Robinson more. The result of this is abundantly clear from the passing chalkboard. Time after time Norwich were getting corners on the right hand side of the pitch, one of which led to the first goal. Then, just minutes later, a freekick from high on the right provided the assist for the second goal. The strategy had generally paid off; putting pressure on the Bolton defence and making them fear a pacey winger and balls into the box. Bennett may not have his name on the scoresheet but without his attacking threat the strategy wouldn’t have been as successful.
Oh finally. I’ve been banging the drum almost every game this season, and finally Norwich pressed the ball in a manner they should every week. Throughout the game, and particularly first half, we pressed the ball high, made defenders pass it back to Jaaskelainen and generally never gave them a moments peace. Wes and Johnson in particular were on the case of Bolton players all afternoon and put in match winning performances. The comparison between an equivalent away game, at Wigan, is below:
The bottom half shows our tackling vs Wigan, overwhelmingly central and in our own half. We sat back and let Wigan play in front of us. The top half shows a team which is tackling much further up the pitch and, sticking to the strategy of the team, also high on the right. By constantly putting pressure on the Bolton fullback, he was never given time to settle and was always wary of Bennett on his shoulder.
This sort of pressing game is what we should be doing every game. Time and time again we’ve been caught out by sitting back and being comfortable to let teams run at us, and against Stoke and Chelsea we paid the price. By getting the forward line to help out in this way, the defence has less threats to worry about.
Bolton Being Crap
Thankfully, there was a large helping of this today. Despite Bolton having more successful passes and tackles in the game, they were second best until late in the game when they were within a whisker of equalising. Down to 10 men or not, any team that is only 1 goal down at home is going to pile on the pressure and Norwich held firm in denying them. But the game was won before this, through a brilliant first half performance from Norwich and a poor one from Bolton.
In the first half of the picture above you can see all Bolton’s successful passes in the first 63 minutes; before they won the penalty. Here you can see an overwhelming number of sideways and backwards passes and absolutely sod all in the final third. Occasionally they broke down a wing, often through Petrov, but they only passed the ball into the box 3 times in an hour. This lack of penetration was behind their complete toothlessness for most of todays game. It was only when they were gifted a penalty (again) that they looked to get back into the game. By this time they had already lost. In fact, it is a measure of Bolton’s ineffectiveness that Russell Martin, out of position at centre back, was completely at ease all game. Any good team would have isolated a played out of position at the heart of defence, perhaps low on confidence and nervous, and targeted him. Instead, the Norfolk Cafu was comfortable throughout, never phased and was the only player on the pitch to complete 100% of passes: 14 from 14.
Bolton’s problems are highlighted by the individual chalkboard for Nigel Reo Coker. Mediocre Reo Coker was their heartbeat in the middle today, but from the picture you can see a player who only played two passes into the final third in the first 63 minutes of the game. Two passes. When he’s the player running the midfield (and it certainly wasn’t Pratley), you’ve got to provide more penetration than that, and it was this surrender in midfield that held Bolton back.
This is in stark contrast to the recalled Fox and Hoolahan.
Fox is a player I’ve been wanting back in the team since he was first dropped to the bench, and today he finally was, and he justified his place. A player with creativity and who can actually find another man in midfield, he was stable and tidy alongside Johnson in the City midfield, providing protection for the back four and accuracy going forward. On top of this, he seems to have taken some things on board. The picture above shows a comparison between his unsuccessful passes vs Wigan and today. What you see is a player who was much tidier in possession, finding another Norwich player more often and keeping the ball than in the opening match. The five unsuccessful open play passes from today were all played into non-threatening positions and for the rest of the game he was solid, composed and confident.
This composure was certainly needed when Bolton clawed back to 2-1 after 63 minutes. When Norwich were holding onto a lead vs Stoke earlier in the season, they sat back, were crap in possession and invited pressure. Today was completely different. While we had the man advantage today, the opportunity was still there to just hoof the ball up the pitch and park the bus, but Norwich didn’t go down that route. Above you can see the passing chalkboards of Wes and Fox, both players who hold the ball brilliantly, from the 63rd minute on. Between them they gave the ball away just 3 times in half an hour. It is this ability to find another Norwich player and hold onto the ball that relieved pressure on the defence as the game wore on and proved their mettle in a fight.
All Holtamania’s dreams came true today. Recalls to the team for Fox and Wes, a team that actually pressed the ball high up the pitch, put up a fight and retained possession and went on to deservedly win. The story of today’s match is of a team that learned it’s mistakes from games earlier in the season. If the team can find a bit of stability as time goes on and cuts out the silly mistakes, we’re going to be fine. After five games, we’ve put in five good performances, and today we got the win we have deserved.